Saturday, September 19, 2009

Do Now, Blame Later: Phillip Arnold Paul on the Loose

Phillip Arnold Paul has paranoid schizophrenia. In 1987, he killed a woman because he believed she was a witch and was committed to Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake, Washington, about 20 miles south of Spokane. On Thursday, he went with a group of patients on a field trip to the Spokane Interstate Fair. Sometime around 11:30 AM, he walked away from his group, and he hasn't been seen since. This is not good.

What makes it doubly not good, however, is that there seems to be no coordinated effort to keep the public informed. I'm not in Washington, so I can't say for sure, but looking over the news reports from the last few days I see no reference to a press conference, no official statement, no news release. There is information out there, but it is very much not clear who is in charge and what they are doing.

Actually, that's not true. One thing that authorities clearly are doing is blaming each other. The union that represents workers at the hospital says that they warned about these field trips. The Secretary of Health and Human Services for Washington has hit the airwaves announcing a review of the policy that allowed Paul out in the first place. The Sheriff's Department has let it be known that they are pretty mad at hospital officials, who didn't report the escape for more than an hour. The Governor has criticized the trip. The hospital says they acted according to policy and taken this trip before. The organizers of the fair say they didn't know about it.

I'm not saying there isn't anything to criticize here, although I'm certainly not in a position to say what the policy ought to be. What I am saying is that criticism of the policy is not what the public needs to hear right now. There is a time and a place for infighting. What the public needs is to put this situation in some context and to understand just exactly how much of a threat they are under. They also need to feel somewhat confident that authorities are going to catch this man. For that, officials are going to need to present a united front.

Here's what should be happening. The communications officer for the incident command (and I sure hope they are using the Incident Command System to organize this) needs to hold a Crisis Management Breifing, which can be watched remotely by the public. He or she needs to stand up in front of the press, with representatives from the Fair, the hospital, the Sheriff's Department, the State Police, and the Department of Human Services, and make it clear that finding Paul is their number one priority. They should say that they have halted field trips (which they have) until the policy can be reviewed, which will happen as soon as they apprehend Paul. They need to detail all the various things they are doing to find him. They need to give information about his current mental state, so the media doesn't need to rely on old court documents that may or may not apply, and about how stable he is and for how long.

There will come a time for a thorough investigation. There will come a time when everyone can point fingers to their hearts' content. Now is not that time. That energy needs to be devoted to finding this guy. People can get fired for the escape later.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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